Kage Baker was a fan of steampunk before it even had a name. She was fascinated by clockwork. Brass brightwork and beveled glass delighted her eyes. She liked machines that clicked and struck gongs, rather than purred. She loved complex gearing systems, despite the fact that she never managed to shift gears on a bicycle in her life.
Of course, the fact that the ancient two-wheeler (she called it The Flying Saucer. I have no idea why.) on which she learned was made of cast iron may have contributed to that; nonetheless, the gear on even a svelte Schwinn defeated her. Though that may have been for the best: the streets in the Hollywood Hills were all at angles so acute that the ability to build up any speed would have launched a bike rider right off the edge of the Hills and over the freeway. Luckily, Kage never got out of low gear.
The old television show The Wild, Wild West was one of her all-time favourites. No one realized it at the time – in the 1960’s, steampunk was unrecognized – but the show had the look down pat even if no-one had given it a name yet. If all you’ve ever seen, Dear Reader, was the very odd cinematic version with Will Smith, do yourself a favour and go find the TV series (there are episodes on youtube). It will amuse and delight you, give you a look at one of the unacknowledged roots of steampunk, and also provide a peek at some of the sets on the inside of Kage’s head.
The other side of this bright brass coin was darker. Kage had nightmares from an early age of being made herself of clockwork. She would dream often that the complicated joints and gears of her hands were exposed, or that a window had opened in her skull: all within was clicking, whirring machinery and tiny puffs of steam. And this was the ultimate and original origin of the cyborg operatives in her Company stories; although, 30 years after waking up in terror to go check her face in the bathroom mirror, they had evolved into sleeker and more modern machines. Kage was proud of them, too. But there is still an echo in all the stories, of her own unease at the idea of being part machine.
However, none of that cast a shadow on her delight when steampunk burst (clanking discreetly) on the genre fiction scene. “I gotta write this!” she exclaimed. Some of the results were her Victorian invisible government agency, the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, and the entire novel Not Less Than Gods. Even before that, though, she wrote of a perfect clockwork hero in the short story “Oh, False Young Man!” (Dark Mondays collection, Night Shade Books). And of course, the rail-riding geared caravans she invented for The Anvil of the World were essentially wind-ups cars. True, they were wound up by racheting levers, operated by mighty-thewed and dedicated men – but their direct ancestors were the key-operated cars Kage loved in Warner Brothers cartoons.
It’s been a little harder to outfit a Ladies auxiliary for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, particularly in the time before bustles. It’s easy to draw some cunning little super-engineered firearm from the inside pocket of a waistcoat; impossible to do the same with a corseted bodice. Reticules only hold so much, and have less cubic available than a tall top hat. Making the Ladies the denizens of a brothel has helped: so often they can dispense with those awkward outer layers …
Though Kage always wanted to come up with some deadly clockwork to fit in a bustle. I have the notes – so who knows?
Tomorrow: things that fall in the channel